Who are these women, sashaying on a runway that protrudes from the mouth of a giant fish sculpture perched above a lake? And who is this priest-like figure, his hands raised in holy fervor beside a fat drag queen in a too-tight blue gown, surrounded by young Asian beauties cavorting in the spray of a waterfall? The answers are surprising in “The Act of Killing,” which boasts Errol Morris and Werner Herzog as executive producers. It might be the most mind-blowing documentary of the year in its exposé of man’s limitless capacity for sadism, self-aggrandizement, self-delusion and absurdity.
Who knows where he came up with the bizarre/brilliant idea, but director Joshua Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia and sought out chief figures among the paramilitary and gang members responsible for a million or more murders in 1965 and 1966. (I’ll get to the brilliant/bizarre part in a moment.) These interview subjects include current politicians and journalists, the latter proudly claiming that their job during those years of terror wasn’t to report the news, but to help the military incriminate and eliminate those who opposed them.
The documentary’s central figure is Anwar Congo, who murdered with his own hands hundreds of his fellow Indonesians. These were people who, by questioning the validity of the military forces that had overthrown the government, were labeled Communists. In truth, they were mainly a non-partisan mix of farmers, union members, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese. And they were slaughtered without repercussion. In fact, their killers even now are seen as heroes.
Here’s where things get surreal. As he interviews them, Oppenheimer proposes to these death-squad operatives that he will make individual mini-films about their murderous youthful work. Not only do they agree, but they agree with gusto. They love movies — Brando and Pacino as gangsters! John Wayne on the range! And musicals! So they get to choose their favorite genres to tell their tales. Thus the parade of singing women from the gaping metal fish mouth. And the faux-noir scenes of men in fedoras grilling suspected commies in shadow-drenched offices. Congo dyes his white hair black to look like his best, younger self for a scene. The fat drag queen who shows up as comic relief in several of the bio-films is in fact his best pal and shadow, a killer thug named Herman Koto who’s never intentionally funny in real life.
Other people would make very different fictional films about these men. Horror movies, say, slash-and-stalk flicks on an epic scale. Not westerns, and certainly not musicals. But this only reflects Congo and company’s lack of personal, moral perspective. “Killing” follows Congo — more than once and with increasing power — to a terrace where he killed many. He takes pleasure in demonstrating for the camera how to snick a man’s head off with a wire garrote. And he speaks loudly and enthusiastically about his bloody work in the presence of his young grandsons. The amoral swagger of these fellows is confusing to watch. You don’t know whether to gasp or laugh in self-protective horror as they boast of their crimes.
Occasionally, Congo and his confederates encounter civilians who discuss the horrors of the 1960s. They maintain forced smiles, insisting that they don’t mean to criticize these death merchants who killed immediate family members and derailed their own futures. Likewise, small shopkeepers in bazaars keep smiling as they’re shaken down for “protection” money from current hoodlums. If Indonesia ever had much of a tourist industry with Westerners, this movie could kill it cold.
But as the documentary lengthens, director Oppenheimer’s idea of engaging these killers in biographical films pays off in small but fascinating ways. Even the brutal, dimwitted likes of Koto can’t help but notice the film-set trauma experienced by the women and children cajoled into impersonating villagers who were raped and slaughtered decades earlier. These “actors” can’t stop sobbing long after “cut” is called.
Near the end of “The Act of Killing” comes a scene that demonstrates the power of watching film — for good, or possibly not. Watching a scene from one of these bio-flicks, where he himself plays the kind of innocent man he terrorized and then beheaded, Anwar Congo quietly wonders, “Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here?”
It seems that only by watching his actions, mediated through a film, is he able decades later to question his proud, even gleeful participation in atrocities. A movie makes it real for him and generates in him glimmers of empathy and awareness. Which may be good news for his own living soul, but it comes too late for the murdered souls of those million and more.
“The Act of Killing.” A documentary directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous and Christine Cynn. In Indonesian and English, with subtitles. Unrated. 122 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.